Friday, April 6, 2012

Law for Nobodies

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious.
               Ancient Hebrew Law Passage, otherwise known as Exodus 22:21-27

This passage is in the midst of one of the earliest sections of law in the Bible. This three chapter law book is placed right after the ten commandments.  Moses received it from God at the top of Mt. Sinai.  The reason Moses received it and it wasn’t given to the people of Israel directly is because Moses and God already tried that method.  The Ten Words were already given to the people, amidst God’s stormy complexion of dark clouds, thunder and lightning.  The people were scared half to death, and so requested—no, demanded—that Moses alone receive God’s word and they promised—really and truly—that they would listen to whatever Moses said as God’s word. 

            So Moses was up on the mountain receiving God’s law alone. 

            Many at this point might scoff at this story and the law it supports.  After all, these wise scholars proclaim, Hammarabi and other leaders of the Ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian peoples had a story similar to Moses, and a law very similar.  As is often the case with scholarship, these mockers have seen the truth but missed the point.  Of course the story was similar.  If God was going to make his point, he had to be telling a familiar story and then altering it.  If I wanted to teach my children not to talk to strangers, I might take the story of Little Red Riding Hood and change it slightly to highlight the dangers of Red speaking to the wolf.  It has been proven that a familiar story shifted slightly for dramatic effect is a successful way of making a memorable point. Neither “Thank God Almighty we’re free at last” nor “Ask what you can do for your country” were originally penned by those we most associate them with.16

            Even so, there is a familiar story—the ruler going to the mountaintop to receive a set of laws from a god—but it wasn’t originally intended to be this way.  Before reverting back to that story, God attempted to tell a different story.  God was to be king of his people directly, with no intermediary.  He was to rule them with his own words, without anyone needing to interpret them.  Thus he spoke the Ten Words to them with his own voice of thunder and power.  And then the people said (as Israel often had said in other stories), “We don’t like this new paradigm.  We want to revert back to the old and familiar.  Moses, you are our leader.  You can just go up and speak to God yourself and so prevent us from facing this terrifying being.”  In this way the new thing God was doing was circumvented by the familiar stories everyone was used to.

            God was content with the situation.  His point was made.  This law was not just another king making up a “mountaintop” experience.  It really was God speaking.  And it was only the people’s desire that placed a person between God and his nation. 

            The law that was given is used somewhat in the same way.  Laws such as these were familiar in the ancient world.  There were many laws speaking of how to treat slaves, how to punish certain lawbreakers, and how to judge in certain legal matters.  But the significance was not in the similarities—rather, it was the differences that stood out clearly to the Israelites.  And this passage quoted above stood out to the Israelites more than most.

            Nowhere did the Hammurabi laws speak of those who were outside the law, non-citizens.  The laws of Hammurabi were for the masters, the land-owners of his people.  Yes, it spoke of slaves and wives and of the land-owners’ responsibility for them.  But it didn’t speak of widows or orphans who were not under the protection of a male land-owner.  Nor did it speak of those so poverty-stricken that they could not pay their debts.  The extreme debtors were stripped of their possessions—including their wives and children—and thrown in prison until their relatives could pay the debt. Strangers, otherwise known as immigrants or transients, were not citizens, and were dependent on others for whatever they received. Whatever abuse these people received was outside the law, for they were not the responsibility of the land-owners.17

            Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, however, saw this situation differently.  Yes, he certainly recognized that these people—strangers, widows, orphans and debtors—were outside the law.  And he also recognized that they were more vulnerable to abuse and oppression than other peoples.  These were people who could not receive justice through the normal legal system established in the world.

But this didn’t mean that they were SOL.18  Rather, Yahweh spoke of these people because he wanted the rulers of his people to know that although no judge would necessarily take the side of these vulnerable, marginal people—He would.  God is the Protector of these people, and he is listening for their complaints.  If God hears the complaints of the needy, then He will pay attention and answer.

            What does it mean when God says he will respond to their cry?  The Israelites knew the answer to this, for in their national history, they know how God responds to the cries of the needy.  In the days of Abraham, the needy cried out to God about an unjust city.  This city would take vulnerable travelers, who were looking for a safe place to reside for an evening, and they would rape and kill them.  This city’s name was Sodom, and the outcry against the city was great, and God destroyed it with fire from heaven.  The Israelites remembered this story and recognized what God was saying.  If they treated the poor and needy with oppression, they would be like Sodom—they would be destroyed like Gomorrah.19

            And Israelites, Yahweh says, should remember to assist the stranger and the needy more than others.  After all, the nation of Israel were immigrants and needy in Egypt.  Given their history, they should remember better than others that God watches over the needy.  That he not only protects them, but that He crushes their oppressors.  

15. The Ancient Hebrew Canon is usually and inaccurately named the Old Testament.  Don’t be fooled by titles!  We usually base our first impression of a work based on its title, but in ancient literature, the titles didn’t exist until hundreds or even thousands of years after the fact, and almost never reflect the original intent of the work.  The ancient Hebrew writings are certainly old—but relatively no older than the “new” testament-- and they are antiquated, as no one follows them for what they say anymore.  But they are not just a “testament”, or a contract between an emperor and his servants, but the stories of how God worked with his people.  The ancient message has more to do with God’s character and different methods of working with humanity than a unified piece of commandment-and-promise.

16. The MLK Jr. quote was originally an anonymous spiritual—as he stated.  And the JFK quote was originally written by Walt Whitman.

17. If you want to read the Hammurabi laws—although I’m not sure why—you can find them in your library in Ancient Near Eastern Texts by Pritchard.

18. To the uninitiated: Shit Outta Luck.

19.Sodom truly is the bad guy of the Hebrew Scriptures, but not for sodomy. Check it out: Genesis 18:20-21; Deuteronomy 29:23-25; Isaiah 1:9-10, 17; Isaiah 3:9-12; Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16:46-50; Amos 4:1, 11.

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